The foregrounded reason is the voice. It’s practically plummy, generally a fine-grained thing. It’s never given much of a workout; his trademark would seem to be a bald head that abhors sweat. His voice, similarly, exudes the crispness of a dress shirt just donned. When he dips into a spoken register (as on the “Give Me Everything” pre-chorus, even the “Back in Time” intro), it’s a lascivious whisper, snake oil from someone who’s already three towns away. (Feel free to replace “towns” with “clubs,” and “snake oil” with “Voli Light”). Put another way, Pitbull dispenses sweet poison; put another, he puts the “confidence” in “confidence man”. Irrational exuberance makes the charts go ‘round; it fueled glam rock and rap-rock and five hundred MCs who hit the charts like they’d never leave. It put bubblegum pop into hipster hearts: let’s pretend these dweebs believe this shit - let’s pretend we do, too. It powers underground concerns who have half a song but one hell of a design team.
So it’s the voice. The words are an afterthought, sure, but they’re treated as such, and not in the sense of clichés carelessly deployed, but in the formalist sense of Paul and John understanding that “diamond rings” fit the meter, so let’s do it twice. I lobbed some cheap shots at Jessie J a couple years ago, but on “Timber,” Pit’s her equal as a fragment fountain. Hip-hop morphemes tumble out like, well, an oil spill (Gucci Mane, 2011). “She says she won’t/But I bet she will” (Lil Wayne ft. Drake, 2011), “Face down/Ass up” (Luke ft. 2 Live Crew, 1990”), “money ain’t a thing” (Jay-Z ft. Jermaine Dupri, 1998), “Look up in the sky/It’s a bird, it’s a plane” (innumerable), “ain’t a damn thing changed” (Ice-T, Wu-Tang Clan, 1993). Viewed uncharitably, it’s bankrupt songwriting. Through a popular-music telescope, you can see pilfering and homage, an assemblage that’s just as new as everything else is and isn’t. And, again, it’s hard for phrases to snag on that voice.
Similarly - since I’m talking about “Timber” - there’s the track of Pitbull’s career arc, charted reasonably fairly by Chris Molanphy in Slate. Chris and I are internet friends; he’s as aware of his centricity in the music-writing sphere as I am of my fringe status. (Obviously, I ain’t just talking numbers: he does good work, consistently, and as a consequence has been published in a variety of places. I keep forgetting to invoice and it takes me a month to write 5,000 ever-so-basic words about some white alt-rock act.) But would it be “right” for Pitbull to stick with Spanish-language, or even Spanglish, hits? Should he still be working the crunk circuit? It’s so clear, at least to me, that the man’s home style is popularity, and he’ll migrate with that moveable plain as long as possible.
Perhaps the hustle alone isn’t good enough a reason, not when there’s Dr. Luke’s abysmal batting average and indie-rock bassists seamlessly transitioning into A&R fucks. But no matter the garb, Pitbull’s been raising the same concerns: loving Miami, rocking clubs, being famous. He’s a party rapper, and whether the DJ’s spinning reggaeton (“Culo,” “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)”), Dirty South/crunk hybrids (“Everybody Get Up” with Pretty Ricky) or Eurodance (“Rain Over Me” with Marc Antony, J. Lo’s “Dance Again”), he’s there, an ever-increasing tally of known quantities.
Perhaps consistent genial hucksterism isn’t good enough a reason, but fuck that. If years of listening to the radio, reading critical lists, and watching my friends cue up the same records have taught me anything, it’s the power of sheer exposure to turn the bland tasteful. So Pit’s glum electro-pinger “Across the World” is a Ride deep cut. And the “Calabria”-jacking club-funker “Pause” is a piece of quarter-formed crap overpowered with tape hiss, redeemed by the simple fact that you paid twenty bucks for Luxe & Reduxe FLAC downloads. And yet, Pitbull’s never flashing less than a Cheshire grin, and how much does that cost someone?
It should be clear that I don’t even like his music that much. (“Timber” is absolutely transporting, and I love his cameo on Enrique Iglesias’s deathless “I Like It”; the aforementioned “Across the World” is something I could put on repeat for a half-hour, and it featured B.o.B giving a rare shoutout to the engineer.) But I recognize what it does, and who it affects, and those are two things most critics won’t even fuck with for anyone working outside of their beat. I’m over the idea of punching bags, of safe repositories for all the anger no one asked us to maintain. I get having bugaboos and the thrill of puncturing other people’s balloons. But it’s a cheap way to a short conversation. And it shuts down the interesting conversations we could be having. Go ahead and call “Timber” an “unasked-for sequel to the mid-’90s Jock Jam staple ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ by Rednex”. But Rednex are awesome: deeply peculiar, warped and exploitative, tuneful and different. I’ll listen to their shittiest song before I turn to “Song for Zula” or a Smith Westerns album. Pitbull’s inherent unflappability, his knack for striving while playing it cool, his way with cadences and his skill for feigning locality in the schlockiest globe-hopping hits are beige in one sense, and remarkable in another, far more interesting one. He’s a pop-rapper, one of the best we’ve ever had, and it was the part he was born to play.
Goddamnit. I was so secure in my dislike for/disinterest in Pitbull, and Shoup has to go and write this?